Politics and Disaster Declarations

March 24th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported on Wednesday that, “As the second hurricane in less than a month bore down on Florida last fall, a federal consultant predicted a “huge mess” that could reflect poorly on President Bush and suggested that his re-election staff be brought in to minimize any political liability, records show. Two weeks later, a Florida official summarizing the hurricane response wrote that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was handing out housing assistance “to everyone who needs it without asking for much information of any kind.””

Particularly interesting is an earlier finding by the Sun-Sentinel that a considerable amount of disaster aid was distributed outside where the hurricanes had struck, “FEMA has been under scrutiny since the Sun-Sentinel first reported in October that the agency was awarding millions of dollars in disaster funds to residents of Miami-Dade County, even though the county did not experience hurricane conditions. At Nelson’s urging, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is investigating. Earlier this month, 14 Miami-Dade residents who received assistance were indicted on fraud charges. As of March 16, FEMA had given $31 million to 12,891 applicants in Miami-Dade for damage claimed from Frances.”

Not surprisingly Democrats have sought to gain some political advantage, “Democrats in Washington said the records confirm suspicions that the federal government used the hurricanes to funnel money to Florida, a key battleground state in the presidential election. “They weren’t really asking for information, yet they were just doling out this money like it was Christmas,” said Lale Mamaux, spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton. “It’s not surprising to learn that [Republicans] played politics with the hurricanes that tragically affected hundreds of thousands of Floridians last year,” said Josh Earnest, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.”

And for their part, FEMA and Republicans denied any link between election-year politics and disaster assistance, “FEMA officials, the governor and the White House have steadfastly denied suggestions that politics played a role in the distribution of hurricane aid in Florida. “The men and women at FEMA don’t give a patooey about who the president is or who the governor is,” FEMA Director Michael D. Brown told the newspaper’s editorial board in October. “Whenever people say stuff like that … we’re just offended by that because that’s just not how we operate.””

News flash to both Republicans and Democrats – disaster aid has been politicized by both parties for a long time. In 2001 Mary Downton and I published a paper (PDF) titled, “Discretion Without Accountability: Politics, Flood Damage, and Climate,” in which we looked at a 30+ year record of FEMA disaster declarations on floods in the context of flood damage, climate and presidential administrations. What did we find?

Oddly enough, there were 50% more disasters declared in years in which the president was running for reelection that in other years. Also, there was no consistent partisan signal in the data. As you might have expected, Ronald Reagan did not like to give out federal money too quickly, but Jimmy Carter seems to have held an even stronger line on disaster assistance. Bill Clinton famously felt everyone’s pain, and this is reflected in his generous disbursements of disaster declarations, but his predecessor George H. W. Bush was also generous with issuing declarations.

Did the federal government play politics in its response to the 2004 hurricanes in Florida? We should only be surprised if this were not the case. But perhaps the current investigations can lead to improvements in the declaration process. As we wrote in our paper, “Presidential discretion without corresponding accountability may in fact place the disaster declaration process at odds with broader goals of hazard mitigation and sustainable development.”

You can find our paper here (PDF).

One Response to “Politics and Disaster Declarations”

  1. Last Day of My Life Says:

    The Bush Brothers & Fluor

    A lot of progressive bloggers will find it of interest that the Bush brothers played politics with FEMA and hurricane relief for Florida. No surprise there for me. This part of Sun Sentinel article interests me.